09 May 2011

The Enemy Within, Our Fear vs. The Power of Love in a Fascinating Fassbinder Film

Fear can be a natural instinct that helps alert us to real danger. Fear can also be born of ignorance and lead to prejudicial even racist behavior. The Nazis were scared liked nobody's business. People in the United States have been afraid of immigrants for as long as there's been a United States, hell even before.

This kind of fear is a victory of superstition and lazy thinking over rationality and human kindness. It is group based in that individuals come to think out of this fear as the result of peer pressure rather than from their own reasoning.

Such fear was addressed in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). The title comes from a line spoken by one of the film's two main characters, Ali. It regards the corrosive nature of fear. Irrational fear eats away at the goodness within people, turning them into miserly, hateful and not incidentally soulless individuals. There is hope. Many people are fully capable of sorting things out and experiencing a victory of love, or at least reasonableness, over hate.

AFETS can also be viewed as a most unconventional love story. (It's interesting to note how many really good films feature atypical romances.) Check this out: a 60ish German widow who is, to be kind, no picture postcard, hooks up with a Tunisian immigrant who is several decades her junior. He is ruggedly handsome boasting a strong upper body. Yeah these things happen all the time.

Sometimes a love story works just because it's so damn odd. If a couple is a few years apart or has different taste in music some people might not believe it'll ever work between them. But there's something about a truly odd couple that makes one say: it's so crazy it just might work! And then really root it on. Couples don't get any odder than Emmi Kurowski and El Hidi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha, Ali for short.

Our Emmi is a cleaning woman who seems quite typical for the job. She is probably quite frugal and maybe her late husband (he was Polish) left her something as she lives comfortably enough. Ali is a mechanic who confesses that his life consists principally of working and drinking, not unheard of. His German is halting, as the subtitles adroitly convey. Ali evidently does much of his imbibing at a bar habituated by fellow Arabs, though its run by a buxom German woman. It is the bar where our two lovebirds meet when Emmi comes in one night seeking refuge from the rain.

Watching the progression of their romance is to appreciate the subtlety with which true love can develop. It is not always fireworks. As AFETS demonstrates, Fassbinder could be patient in letting his stories unfold. I'm just coming to the prodigious German director who died in 1982 not yet 38 years old yet the director of dozens of feature films, a couple of TV movies, plays and other assorted artistic accomplishments. Drugs can help keep you busy and then later kill you too young. A few films into my self taught Fassbinder film course, I'm marveling at his sometimes parallel use of a leisurely camera and rapid developments.

Any romance is going to face obstacles, especially if its right smack dab in the middle of a movie. Remarkably, despite their incredibly different backgrounds, Emmi and Ali are making a go of it. It's everyone else that's a problem.

This is where fear has set in. Emmi's co workers, neighbors, and children just don't get it. We get glimpses into their xenophobia before they even learn of the couple. Once they see the duo -- forget about it.

Emmi seems an altogether ordinary woman but the manner in which she stands up to the haters is an example of the uncommon courage that lives within many people. Ali is strong too but occasionally succumbs to various temptations. As couples go they may outwardly be a strange combination, but they face the same sort of dilemmas we all do.

Fassbinder, who in addition to directing, wrote the screenplay, made an interesting choice in having some of chauvinists change their spots. But of course its why some of the change that is the rub -- their own self interest. Sometimes people do the right thing for the wrong reason. It's a start.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a bold film made by a bold filmmaker. It successfully tackles some nasty human behavior and wraps it comfortably within a love story. I'm ready for more Fassbinder....

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